I awoke with an awful and mysterious pain in my neck. It was bad. About an 8.5 on the scale and it felt stiff and sore as hell. I was nauseous too.
It was 1997. Scar-beria in the North, North Beaches at Birchmount and the Danforth where Dean and I were renting a fabulous red-brick two and a half story house. It had a shot-gun back yard that Delta and Grizzly loved and would fly off the back deck to chase down squirrels to the perimeter, tales wagging and barking all the way. We had just exited the Arctic and on to a new adventure starting in the GTA. (We have movedsix times since then.)
I had received a call from my Dad who was in Niagara Falls then. He wanted me to come visit regularly. He wanted to form some sort of better relationship with me now that we were relatively close by. The following words came out of my mouth, as if with a mind of their own,
‘Why not come visit me, Dad? You could see our new place and we could have a walk on the Bluffs and see all the gorgeous estates and pretty fall colours.’
Okay I will, he said. Give me some directions and I’ll come next week on Tuesday.
Tuesday has no feel, I thought, an automatic comedic reply, in my head, from a favourite TV show: Seinfeld. I’ll make you lunch, Dad.
Okay…so now what? My stomach roiled. My forehead beaded with sweat. My heart pounded. I was having a stress response and his visit was a week away. Yikes.
The following morning, I awoke with the stiff, sore neck. I searched the Beaches huge paper phone book (what’s that?) for a massage therapist who could help me. I made a bunch of calls but the only guy who was available asap was the guy mentioned in the title of this post. I went for it. Immediately. That’s how afraid I was of this pain.
I drove down there and parallel parked in front of his address. I literally was saying ouch, ouch, ouch, ahhh as I struggled to turn my head to maneuver into the spot.
I had never had a shiatsu massage so, I was really unsure of what to expect. Having spoken to the guy on the phone, he sounded so nice and sincere, I was feeling hopeful. Something had to help this pain in my neck.
When I walked into his therapy room, I saw a futon mattress on the floor covered with a perfectly white sheet. He was dressed in white also and he had this curly head of blond hair and this angelic face that he turned toward me. He had a dozen or so years on me and he remained kneeling on the futon in hero pose as he gestured for me to have a seat so we could have a chat before treatment. He positioned himself so that I didn’t have to turn or cock my head in order to look at him. The tears were already spilling down my cheeks.
Oh dear, he said. Martha, why not tell me what’s going on? When did the pain start and what’s happening in your life right now?
I told him the pain arrived out of nowhere. Woke up with it. Told him I was feeling very anxious about my Dad coming to visit and that we had a tough relationship. Then I said…
He’s a real pain in the neck.
Ahhh, he said gently. That sounds like it could be the problem. Parents can be the source of a lot of stress.
I was making ahuh sounds wanting to nod but unable to at this point. (K, while I am writing this, there is this pain creeping into my neck…sympathy pain for that younger version of myself, perhaps).
He asked me the exact plans for the visit. This guy was into concrete details, not airy-fairy. I was liking him more and more as I am a very concrete-type person. I told him that I was going to show my dad around and make lunch for him and then take him for a walk down to the Bluffs.
He asked, what sort of food does your Dad like?
I said, he likes steak and blue cheese and almost everything besides that. He likes black coffee and desserts too. He’s a good eater, I said.
Well, then how about a steak salad with blue cheese crumbled on top, said Mr Angelic Shiatsu Massage Guy.
Was this guy for real? He was truly helping me.
He said when a stressful visitor is coming, it’s a good idea to have a set plan for the visit, with an end point (have something to do on the other end that brings it to a close, in this case it would be the 2:30 rush hour GTA traffic to be avoided at all costs). Have a menu and be organized. Next, realize that you are in control of this visit and that it is on your turf and that ninety-nine percent of things we fret and worry about never actually happen. Have low expectations of your visitor so he doesn’t disappoint you again. Realize that he is him and you are you. You are an adult now, Martha. No need to let him infect you any longer.
The pain was subsiding while he gently and sincerely spoke these words to me.
He then had me lie down on my belly on the pristine white sheet and he worked on my neck, shoulders and back. He worked my arms and fingers too and moved to my feet. By the end of it I was a jellyfish on the sand. All pain was gone.
I will never forget this miracle worker who helped me through this stressful event. It was the best sixty bucks I ever spent.
So, Dad showed up on Tuesday at 11 am. (My husband Dean was downtown Toronto at iti, as he was on an intensive 9 month course). Dad was on his best behaviour. He was charming and funny and polite. He loved our house and lunch made him speechless. The steak salad with crumbled blue cheese turned out to be fabulous with garlic toast and butter tarts for dessert with black coffee. He was eating out of my hand by the end of it. (Figuratively speaking).
We waddled down the hill to the Scarborough Bluffs and walked in the park there with the dogs also on their best behaviour, for once. The whole visit was incredible. Then Dad looked at his watch and said he should hit the road back to Niagara Falls. He gave me a peck on the cheek and off he went, with a butter tart and a black coffee for the road.
One thing for sure, that pain in the neck got my attention. It made me seek help and because I really needed it, I was open to receive the help. It equipped me for future pain-in-the-neck challenges and helped me to realize that most of the things we worry about never even happen.
Our son, Leo, came into this world in a bit of a nightmare situation back in 1999 but, regardless, he was one of the easiest children ever to raise and to love. He challenged us a bit with court-room type drama once in a while but, it seemed it was mostly for good reasons. He ended up being our only child, even though we hadn’t planned it that way, and funny, since both Dean and I come from large families.
He never once got into anything or made huge messes. Never opened the cupboard under the sink or dismantled the chandelier like his Uncle Jobe. He would ask me daily for his nap time saying, ‘Nap now, Mum’ as he put his chubby hands together by his right ear and tilted his head as if it was his pillow (the American Sign Language sign for bedtime). He would then sleep for about three hours.
So, this one crisp autumn day, we were running around on a country soccer pitch with our two big Northern dogs, Delta and Grizzly. Leo was wearing his blue hooded, hand-knitted sweater from Nanny in Newfoundland. We had this old soccer ball that Dean was eager for Leo to fall in love with, soccer being Dean’s passion.
The dogs were racing around. Leo was racing around. I was watching Leo’s every move (as was my normal then).
Suddenly, from about 50 feet away, Dean passes that soccer ball to Leo. Let me rephrase that. Dean hauled off and belted that soccer ball toward Leo. There was 2-year old toddler Leo. Watching that ball sail toward him. It became slo-mo for a sec, and then WHAP! Leo caught it right on the middle of his smooth, baby, forehead. His blond head snapped back slightly and then forward again.
I screamed, ‘YOU ASSHOLE’! At Dean for doing this to my baby. We raced to him. I picked up Leo expecting major tears.
He didn’t even cry.
Dean was mortified. He hadn’t expected the ball to fly at Leo’s forehead.
After our move to the Annapolis Valley, our Leo being about four years old then, we started off in a duplex up on Pleasant St as was told in this story: A Simple East Coast Life. So, at the time, Leo was usually getting up in the middle of the night to get a drink and to pee. He would routinely wake me up to let me know what was going on with him. This one day, I kindly explained to Leo that it would be perfectly fine if he were to get up and do his thing without disturbing me and also without tripping over the dogs where they would inevitably lay in the doorway of our bedroom (the bathroom being across the hall). The power of plain language is going to be highlighted here.
That night, middle of the night, Leo gets up and taps me on the shoulder, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to disturb you but, I am going to get a drink and go pee’. I claw myself out of a deep sleep to acknowledge my mistake (he didn’t know what ‘disturb’ meant!) While I’m at it, I remind him not to trip over the dogs.
Well, he stepped successfully over the fur-heads enroute to the bathroom. I hear him do his pee. I hear him fill the water cup, sip, then, step, step, step…
Scurry of large dogs away from the wet spill.
‘Sorry Mommy. I tripped and spilled my water.’
All this time, Dean is still snoring. Men.
First year of University, in our same town. Leo is eighteen now and in residence. One day, early on, I get a text:
‘Mom, I’m gonna need another towel asap.’
Leo was always a pretty confident guy. Always pretty sure that every need and necessity would be met. Living on his own was going to be a bit of a curve.
Leo to his dad by text, ‘hope I’m not pushing my luck with this one but could you get mom to give me some new linens for me to put on my bed?’ (Keep in mind that I have asked him to bring his linens home to wash each week. He did it once in six months.)
This year, in a house with five guy roommates:
‘mom, can I cook this frozen pizza in a microwave?’
Me: ‘no honey. In the Oven.’
Leo: ‘I don’t think there is an oven.’
Me thinking, how does one not notice an oven?
‘ok so keven and I left a bunch of dishes in the dishwasher for way too long and now they’re all moldy, what should we do?’
‘the lightbulb in my bathroom stopped working, any tips on the fix’
He had this way of hearing and observing me and drawing conclusions. Like this one day when he was four, we went to a friend’s house who had just been brushing his teeth, with the residual paste on his lips. I asked, ‘did we catch you at a bad time?’
A few days later, a canvasser comes to our front door. Leo and I go to the door together, as was our way then. We open the door to find a man with a tie and clip board but, he also had a bit of white toothpaste on the side of his mouth. Leo asks me: ‘Mommy, did we catch him at a bad time?’ It was weird, but I knew instantly why my little guy would ask that.
One final one for ya… this one day, Leo was very disappointed because he wasn’t allowed to go for a play with a friend because something else was going on. He began to cry pretty hard in disappointment. His face red. I said, ‘Buddy? Are you going to be okay?’ Leo looks at me straight on and says: ‘I’m having a hard time’. He had overheard me say this to a friend who was sad.
Make no mistake about it. Being a mom is the best thing I have ever done. The best gift I have ever received was a precious little guy to raise and love and form a family with.
In my early twenties, I was posted to Lahr, Germany. Initially I was a transportation platoon commander in Supply and Transport Company in 4 Service Battalion in the Canadian Army. To put it simply, I had a platoon of 30 soldiers who drove MAN 10-ton trucks (these bad boys, as seen below)
which would carry supplies: ammunition, water, rations, various needed items, and spare parts for forward fighting troops and other support units within the Brigade. During peace time, we conducted training operations such as weapons use, field exercises and fitness competitions to improve morale, esprit-de-corps and to prepare for future deployments. As the Platoon Commander, I routinely conducted all manner of administrative duties, personnel evaluations and reports, test and inspection readiness, subordinate training, orders groups, equipment maintenance checks, and many other duties in accordance with my rank and position.
For the weapons aspect, a couple of times per year, we would all dispatch by military road move (huge convoys of jeeps, light and heavy trucks, trailers, kitchen trucks and the like) to a Gun Camp in Valdahon, France for two weeks of training on the shooting ranges.
While there, we were assigned to a room and a cot in one part of the camp. The other two-thirds of the place was inhabited by French and German units. We shared the mess hall with them and as such, had opportunities to observe them. Our uniforms kept us together as a unit but apart from them. It was interesting to consistently see and remember this all this time later, that the Germans were the physically largest of us all. The French were the smallest and we, the Canadians, were right in the middle. The female soldiers were almost always the smallest of all and there were only a few dozen women there in total, myself included.
As an illustration of one aspect of being a female officer, while there, one of my colleagues, a fellow officer no less, decided he would make a move on me. I hadn’t yet started to date Dean (the guy I was completely in love with but hadn’t been able to solidify a relationship with…yet) so this guy figured he could go for it. He cornered me in my barrack room and started to physically block me from leaving. He had this creepy, predatorial look on his face. It dawned on me that I was alone in this huge old building with him. I was going to have to get defensive if he tried anything. So, with two hands on his chest, I pushed him back roughly and told him I was NOT interested. He seemed surprised. He didn’t bother me again, but, can you image thinking that that tactic would work?
So back to the story at hand…
this one day, I was on the rifle range with a couple dozen soldiers. I used to really enjoy shooting on the range. The controlled breathing. The focus. The single-mindedness of it. There was nothing but the trigger and the target. Nothing. I would take position. Take preliminary aim. Exhale slowly. Hold it. Confirm aim. Squeeze the trigger. Check. Repeat. Writing this in my fifties, I am there again.
There was a master corporal who was in command of this particular range, of which there were many in this training area. Technically I outranked him but on shooting ranges, the ranking soldier is the one in command of the range and wore an arm band indicating this. He had done a specialized course to be qualified to command the range. This guy was a know-it-all, loud mouth with an attitude from Cape Breton, as was apparent by his accent. I have always found the Cape Breton lilt to be endearing. Not on this guy.
Anyways, we were there shooting our C7 semi-automatic assault rifles and I, my Browning 9 mm pistol as well, and enjoying a hot, very dry day. It was so bright that it was actually hard to see our targets and the holes we made in them, from where we lay in a line in prone position. Then Master Corporal Attitude says he’s going to get out the tracer rounds in order to be able to see our target shooting better.
It’s too dry for tracer! I thought, with alarm.
Tracer is a training round that has a small, burning, highly visible pyrotechnic flame coming out of its back end. It is like shooting lit matches down the range. The kind of matches that don’t extinguish easily.
Alas, I didn’t say anything to dispute the idea and then someone shot tracer and started a field fire almost instantly.
Next thing we know the whole Battalion is out chaotically fighting fires in acres and acres of dry-as-tinder hay. We worked for hours, burning and blackening ourselves, ruining uniforms and boots and breathing a lot of smoke. Water trucks eventually showed up but the village was ill equipped for such a huge fire. I recall a water tank truck with a little garden hose type attachment spitting out drops of water. Grampa Dalton would have said, ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job‘. He was usually referring to a trick in the nightly card games of Euchre but, that’s what I thought when I saw that water truck. Finally, proper fire trucks arrived from a city and we were stood-down. We ate, drank a few beers, showered and hit the rack (army-speak for bed).
I pondered the hours of fighting the field fire and the exact moment I found my command voice. When I would see a soldier not knowing what to do, or not moving fast enough to help, I would loudly encourage him or her to
‘COME OVER HERE’!
‘TAKE THIS RUG TO THAT PATCH OF FIRE, SOLDIER’!
And… they responded to me. Little ole new-to-the-Battalion me. It was invigorating and felt right, like I was falling into step. Again I realized that there are some of us who need to lead but, there are more of us who just want to follow.
As far as I know, nothing was ever investigated about the use of tracer rounds on a hot and dry day in Valdahon, France in 1990.
I often wondered though if the fire would have happened had I just opened my mouth.
(Pictures found on google images. Thank you.)
The following is a comment from Col Gordon Grant, from his perspective at the top:
This training event caused considerable angst for the leadership. There are three incidents I vividly remember. First, I was the Second in Command of the Battalion. The Commanding Officer was away for the day so I was the acting Commanding Officer. The Commandant of the French Camp invited me to lunch. We enjoyed a good meal and engaging conversation. Suddenly, the door flew open and a French captain ran in and whispered something to the Commandant. The captain wore a pained expression and I knew it was bad news for someone. The Commandant dabbed his mouth with his napkin, smiled and said, “Apparently, your Canadian soldiers are attempting to burn my camp down.”
I left the luncheon and returned to the field. The wind carried the fire to several locations and we actually faced three separate fires – the battalion divided into three groups and built fire-breaks to slow the advance. I overheard on the radio that one of our corporals was down with smoke inhalation and the medics declared her dead. A Sergeant Traclet refused to accept her loss and he worked on her for 20 minutes and successfully resuscitated her.
The fires were spreading toward the Camp’s ammunition depot. The danger radius of potential explosions included the civilian hamlet just outside the camp. We now had to prepare to evacuate the local population. The officers and soldiers were outstanding. With only shovels to combat the fires they faced a 30-foot wall of flames, stopped the fire’s advance, and saved both the ammunition depot and the hamlet.
That night the Commanding Officer authorized free beer. I remember coming into the building where 500 soldiers were streaked with soot as they drank and tried to outdo each other with war stories. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Gremlins. The fire went down in Battalion history as a huge morale booster – but it came ever so close to being a catastrophe.
While living above the Arctic Circle in the town of Inuvik for a couple of years in the 90s, I got into running. Yes, running above the Arctic Circle folks. No corner. No Baby. (Not that I’m Baby or anything.)
Dean and I were living in a huge apartment above a Skidoo store (what else would it be?) and we were both working full time: Dean as a Director at the local college and myself as Manager of the medical clinic. We were out to work by 8:30 each morning, walked home for lunch, and then finished at 6 every evening. There was very little physical exertion in our days of mostly sitting.
Soon, new friends Mitsy and Byron moved to town and they were into running in a big way. The way they talked about it, it got me intrigued to possibly start again. I hadn’t run for a few years.
My first time out, I ran for ten minutes only. I gradually increased my time. Before long, I was running 10Ks, except during the very darkest winter months. The month of December was basically twenty-four hour darkness. Hibernation or vacation time.
Our first Christmas up there, we flew down to Vancouver and rented a car. We went to visit my brothers Job and Mark in Sooke, took a peek at Royal Roads Military College (yep, the peacocks were still there, and still distinctly smelly and noisy), tried to have a plate of nachos at the Six Mile Pub (‘Sorry we don’t do them during supper anymore’ I nearly cried at this) and then drove all the way down to Los Angeles over the next two days. There, we stayed in a small hotel in Hollywood. So, from the quiet dirt roads of Inuvik to a dozen lanes of traffic on a jammed freeway. Extreme.
We walked around Rodeo Drive, saw the stars in the sidewalk, did some window shopping and from there drove through the desert to Palm Springs. Circling back through Ojai, we stayed a night with our runner friends Mitsy and Byron. We had a fun supper with them and marveled at the citrus trees in the backyard, and then we were off north. First to San Francisco, then to a little town just north of there where we enjoyed walking on the beach in December. Next, off north again to Vancouver where we stayed in a nice room for New Year’s Eve. We walked around downtown a bit, then back to our room to watch an in-house movie while lying in a very comfortable bed, feeling like a million bucks. We then flew back to Inuvik where reality struck hard. Vacation over.
To exercise the dogs, we would get on our snowmobile and drive on the ice-road toward Tuktoyaktuk. Every year, to facilitate travel and transport of goods from Inuvik and points south, the 150 kms to Tuk, the Territory would build an ‘ice-road’ on the frozen MacKenzie River. In the most basic sense, it was the plowing of snow to build guard rails and delineate the pure ice roadway. The scary thing about the ice-road, which was completely dramatic and beautiful, was that if you ever got into a spin out there, it would be a toss up as to which way you had been driving. It looked exactly alike on both sides of the road – stunted, drunken trees so it was just a guess unless you were smart and traveled with a compass. Anyway, the dogs would run, full tilt, beside our skidoo for a few kms and back. They loved it. Happy lolling tongues the whole way.
Soon enough, there began to be a bit of daylight and then a full twelve hours by March, we would be out running almost daily. Granted, it was still cold, and it would take about ten minutes to get dressed for the run with layers and layers of athletic Lycra and polypropylene and wool toque and neoprene balaclava, wool mitts and socks, then trail runners. We would always figure one layer on our legs for each ten degrees below zero and then one extra layer up top.
Next, a drink of water and slathering of exposed skin with Vaseline, leash the dogs and hook them to the coupler and off we’d go. There were almost no music-playing devices back then, so, the only real sound would be the funny random noises of the huge ravens, sometimes clucking, gurgling, popping or cawing, depending on their mood or message to be conveyed, and there was our own breathing and foot falls, of course.
We would often do a loop around Inuvik that was about 10K. It would go along the back road and then a right turn and a gradual hill and we would be on this spectacular ring road. It was the final frontier, – so, running along it, one could imagine no one else existed at all. Look left and there were literally millions of acres of wilderness with those black, stunted trees growing every which way and half drunkenly falling down. These were the final trees before the tree line, after which there would be a stark switch to tundra and pingos (dome-shaped mounds consisting of a layer of soil over a large core of ice). Snow or frost was on every surface, every spruce needle, every power line wire. It was spectacular and we had it to ourselves until a right turn onto Main Street and back to our apartment.
These days, I don’t run anymore due to sore knees, just a lot of walking. But, it was a great pass-time while living above the Arctic Circle and I will always fondly remember those days and the final frontier feel.
After exiting the Arctic , where we lived for three years, give or take, I applied for a job from an ad in the Globe & Mail Newspaper. A recruiting firm was looking to hire a House Manager for a wealthy family; let’s call them The Roses in Toronto’s Rosedale. Eagerly, I applied for the position thinking that I had the attributes mentioned in the ad.
I made the cut.
At the end of the first interview with Braun the hiring manager, I asked him why they picked me out of the three hundred applicants. He said they liked both my creative leaf-art at the bottom of my resume as well as my military experience. Both sides of the brain.
Braun had spent the better part of a dozen years working for the Beaten Family and he knew the kind of person that would do well in this job. Detail-oriented, strong work ethic, well-spoken, able to foresee disasters and their solutions, appreciative of wealth but not themselves wealthy and, let’s not forget, approval-seeking. Yep. I had all of those qualities.
After the second interview with the agency, I was told I would next be going to the offices of Mr Rose to be interviewed by him. I made sure to have a sturdy note pad, and a good pen. I donned my navy blazer, blouse and skirt. For the first time I was missing my military uniform which made wardrobe decisions so easy. In my mind, I was a Captain heading to a meeting with a General. Just putting it into perspective.
It went well. I could tell Mr Rose was happy with my confident eye-contact, my note-taking and my questions. My seriousness but also my quick smile. I even managed to negotiate my salary up to the next notch, which I could tell both amused and impressed him.
He told me that the next step would be to visit with his family. Meet them, tour the houses and property. Get an idea of the scope of the job.
I had been told they were a Jewish family. Knowing nothing about the Jewish faith, I sought the opinion of a Jewish acquaintance. He said my visit would be during one of the Jewish holidays – Rosh Hashanah. I was nervous about being the House Manager for a family with a completely unfamiliar faith to the one I had known growing up. I was bound to make mistakes, even subtle ones, just because I had no idea.
At the time, I was reading a book by Deepak Chopra. In this book, he advised to always show up with a small gift when going to someone’s house. Wise advise, I thought. I picked up a small box of chocolates and made sure they were kosher. I donned my conservative atire and grabbed my sturdy note pad and reliable pen.
I drove into their estate in my 3-cylinder shit box I called ‘Puny’. The same one I had bought before leaving Comox in 1988.
The house was modern and grand. I knocked on the door and smiled gently as I was met by Mrs Rose. I passed her the little box of chocolates and made nicey-nice while she showed me the huge kitchen and writing nook where she wrote her cookbooks. Then Mr Rose took me to the other house which backed onto theirs.
His 4000 square foot Man Cave.
The door opened to a dining room with a chandelier bigger than me and a table which sat twenty-two. Enough said. The place was perfect. A lot of brown and beige tones with the odd hint of deep burgundy. Very mannish. He told me, and this was important, ‘I want this place to always be absolutely sublime‘.
K, I didn’t even know what sublime meant back then.
The first thing I did upon getting back to Scarberia (North Beaches really but, whatever) was look it up.
Sublime: Perfect, without blemish.
I was sweating.
I knew I could do this job, but, did I WANT to? It sounded like a lot of bullshit to me. My mind imagined my days on that property. Worried about every little thing. I was completely stressed just thinking about it. When Dean and I had traveled to Australia, we had seen the movie: The Remains of The Day. Was I meant to be a glorified Butler / House Keeper; a combination of both Anthony Hopkins’ and Emma Tompsins’ characters? Was I to walk around with a feather duster and white gloves?
Then, the call came. Braun the Hiring Manager was dressing me down for bringing a box of chocolates to the interview at their home. He told me it was inappropriate. Mr Rose had mentioned it and said it was like I was trying to ‘butter’ them up to hire me. Geez. This guy was a freak. I wasn’t even hired and he was already disappointed in me.
I remained silent when Braun stopped speaking. I was in a phone booth in the village of Maggie River on Eight Mile Lake, near The Camp in Cottage Country of Ontario. It was a gorgeous early summer day. I looked at the shiny water near the locks. I looked at the nodding heads of the wild flowers growing in every possible crack or fissure.
Sublime: Perfect. Without Blemish.
I took a deep breath and told Braun that I was no longer interested in the position. I said, ‘If Mr Rose is that worried about a proffered tiny box of chocolates, I don’t think I can work for him. I don’t want to work for people like that. Sorry.’
Braun was speechless. He had invested a lot of time in me. He would have to start over.
‘You mean, you don’t want to work for The Rose Family? At that salary? Maybe I can get you more money, M.’
‘Sorry, Braun. I can’t do it. It’s not for me.’
I walked away from that phone booth feeling a massive weight lift off my shoulders. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Next, I went for a swim in the shiny waters of Eight Mile Lake.
Sublime: Perfect. Without Blemish.
(All pictures come from Google Images. Thank you!)
We arrived at the holy river of Hinduism, the Ganges, in Varanasi, India at 4 in the morning. We had been on an all-night converted school bus from Nepal. (see post Namaste, Nepal (age 30) 🙏) We sat on the ancient stone steps and watched in fascination as the pilgrims bathed in the holy black waters. Some of the pilgrims wore long lengths of fabric wound around their sinewy bodies. They methodically performed the rituals and prayers, their lips moving silently as they cupped water in their palms, raised them and poured it over their heads. To my husband Dean and I, at dawn in the incredibly exotic country of India, on the steps of the Ganges, it was out of this world to witness. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not.
From there, we hefted our packs onto our backs and walked up into the crushing crowds of Varanasi to find a place to stay. We had our guide book (remember, there were no cell phones or TripAdvisor back then; this was March 1996) and after about five tries and many exhausting steps, we managed to find a very inexpensive hostel that looked clean and suitable. Once there, we immediately purified some tap water in our Nalgene water bottles using our trusty iodine drops that took thirty minutes to kill off any major critters in the water. This chore would be repeated several times each day, as it was all through Nepal. Before that, in Australia (see post: We’re Not in Canada Anymore…this is Oz (age 28)) we had drank tap water and a fair bit of beer, with no issues.
I should mention here that, although unsavoury to write about, Dean and I had picked up some kind of bowel parasite in Nepal. Likely during the trek when dousing our heads in mountain run-off streams. On a few occasions, I let a bit of water into my mouth. I’m sure Dean had too. Said parasite was doing a serious number on us physically. We were nearly emaciated. I grabbed Dean’s upper arm one day to find my fingers almost wrapping all the way round. Scary. I wasn’t sure how much longer we could backpack – that is how weak we both were getting and with bad stomach cramps. There was also the obvious need to use the toilet a lot and with considerable urgency at times.
Anyhoo, we enjoyed the city, walking around and seeing the sights. We visited markets and bought fruit and nuts from vendors.
We drank many a fine lassi (yogurt and fruit smoothie-type drink). Indians do yogurt incredibly well.
Next, it was time to go visit the majestic Taj Mahal. So, onto a bus we climbed for the eleven hour ride from Varanasi to Agra. It was on this ride that we met an Indian-American family who were visiting India as tourists. They told us many wonderful tips and tricks. One of them was to order ‘the thali’ to eat, and always to eat it with yogurt, as yogurt would cool the palette in case of too much heat or spice.
I just have to say, there was nothing more delicious and satisfying to us than this incredible meal on a stainless-steel tray. Dean and I were overjoyed every meal time to get another chance to eat another thali. We indulged in a thali each at the lunch stop enroute to the Taj. Our Indian-American family joined our table and our education of India continued. It was fascinating. Again, it dawned on me that one of the best things about world travel were the folks we met along the way.
Finally, we reached the outskirts of Agra, where we could now see the Taj in the distance.
But this is what it looked like up close:
This incredible piece of architecture was built between 1632 and 1647 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The Taj Mahal was dedicated to Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is shrouded in mystery, optical illusions, inset gems and the deaths of its many builders. It is a fascinating place and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
After Agra, we spent a week in New Delhi. We took the train and it was also other-worldly. There are a myriad of ticket classes you can buy, the worst being third class. We were on second class and it was dusty and dirty, but okay. The Indian train system is a marvel of efficiency and engineering. There is a network of over 65,000 km and 7,000 stations. At one point on our ride, the train came into a station where as soon as the train stopped there were scores of vendors selling their wares at the window, all yelling to announce their wares. Everything from safety pins to hankies to tea which is called ‘chai’.
“CHAI! CHAI! CHAI! cried the Chai-wallah, approaching with a large steel bucket of chai and a tray of little clay cups. We each took a cup of the sweet, spicy, milky tea through our window. It was only lukewarm, and went down fast. When we passed the cup back the chai-wallah, he smashed them on the tracks. A split second later, a lower cast man scrambled onto the tracks to collect the pieces. It was explained to us that the collector would sell those pieces back to the potter who would turn them back into little clay cups, and in turn, sell them back to the Chai-wallah.
Suddenly, Dean jumped up and said, “I’ll be right back”. He jumped off the train and, looking out the little window, I saw him over at a take-out window, buying two white boxes of food for us. He ran back and sat down. It was then that I realized I had been holding my breath. If the train had started to leave while Dean was getting the food, we may have never seen each other in India again. Such is the vast and convoluted system of Indian trains. Add that to the magnitude of a population at that time of nearly 1 billion people, and it would have been a needle in a haystack kinda situation. Remembering that we couldn’t just Facebook message each other or text, snapchat or Instagram or what have you. I’m not really sure what we would have done, had we been separated on that train.
In New Delhi, we found a lovely hostel with an internal garden where we rested up and did some reading but also our daily walks around the city streets to see the sights. One day, we walked into a luxury hotel. I shall preface this with the fact that we had just seen several lepers begging on the streets. They were also known as The Untouchables. The jewelry store in the hotel lobby was selling star rubies for thousands of dollars. The patrons of the hotel were wearing gold-threaded saris. The dichotomy of wealth was hard to comprehend.
It was getting to be time to head home to Canada, since our wee parasites were becoming more and more of an issue.
When we got back to our mother land, we had no idea what we would do for employment. And, we couldn’t wait too long because living in Canada is a heck of a lot more expensive than India and funds were dwindling. After some deliberation, we decided to head North again. This time to the bigger centre of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. We had spent a year in the Arctic prior to traveling (see post North of 66 ~ A Trying Year in Polar River (age 27) ❄️) We organized ourselves and made the cross-Canada trek in our tiny little car, the three-cylinder Chevrolet Sprint (nicknamed “Puny”) that I had bought in Comox, BC, upon acceptance into training for Army Logistics (see post I’m In the Army Now … 🔫).
Upon arrival in Inuvik, some good friends of ours put us up for a few weeks in their house, which was very generous of them. We started looking for work immediately. Within ten days, and some good luck, I had a full-time position as a Receptionist at the most northerly medical clinic in Canada, but then soon thereafter as the general manager. Dean found a job at Aurora College as the Director of Extension Programs. So, really good jobs in very short order.
The funniest thing would happen due to the parasite I still had. As the receptionist in the medical clinic, I would routinely have to lead patients to their examination room. What was happening, in this evolution of the parasite problem, was it was causing me to toot upon movement of my body of any kind. So, I’d be politely speaking to the patients as I walked them to the room and in the ‘back’ground was: toot, toot, toot like a little motor with each step I took. After being truly mortified when it first started, I later just mentally threw up my hands and gave in to the hilarity of it. There was really nothing I could do. I don’t think anyone really noticed anyway. Right?
After our first paycheck, we found an apartment.
Living in the tiny town of Inuvik (7,000 people) after travelling in India (~1 billion people) was like night and day. Dean and I were so blessed to have each other and our friendship, which was strong and had seen many adventures, hardships and blessings already. We stayed in Inuvik for two years until it was time to go South, and we found ourselves Exiting the Arctic ☃️enroute to Toronto, Canada for another chapter.
We trekked for about thirty days in the Himalayas doing the Annapurna Circuit, in an unconventional manner, which will come to light as the story unfolds. To get to the starting point of the trek, we bought a ticket for the bus. Not lucky enough to grab a seat each on the inside of the bus, Dean and I, with our hired guide, Naba, were seated on the roof of the bus. This trek was sure to be interesting, if we could get there in one piece. That bus, that we were on top of, was not driving a straight, smooth roadway. Picture the opposite: a twisty-turny, gravel, crumbling donkey track along the side of a mountain with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet if the bus driver was to make a wrong turn, or get too close to the eroding edge. Not to worry — the horn worked well and seemed to be the sole means of defensive driving techniques employed.
We had flown into Kathmandu late and were immediately wooed by several touts wanting us to take his taxi. We picked one, told him our destination: the Kathmandu Guesthouse and agreed on a price. We fell asleep and in the morning made our way to their breakfast room and ordered our first lassi of the trip which is a blend of yogurt, water, spices and fruit. The server was a sweet and most attentive Nepali man who put his palms together and bowed his head at us, ‘Namaste’. Dean said to me afterward that he was an example of ‘service without servitude’. When we returned to the Guest House after a walk all over Kathmandu and through the fascinating market, the sight we saw was like something out of an old fashioned orphanage. All of the staff of the Guesthouse were in the main lobby. They were fast asleep, lying on straw mats and wrapped in wool blankets like toasty sausage rolls on a baking sheet. If one rolled over, so would they all.
The next evening, we attended a slide show for a river rafting expedition that we thought was too expensive for our budget. This cool group of Westerners with several Nepalese had started a river rafting group which charged $200 US for a five-day expedition on the Kali Gandaki River. After eating several bowls of incredibly delicious, tallow-popped pop-corn and drinking a few of their complimentary rum drinks each, it seemed that we suddenly had enough money to go on this expedition. It was a great decision as we had a blast. We met several other fun and adventurous travelers on the trip too.
This is a group of children we met on the beach who were running and tumbling together. Suddenly, there was a whistle from their mom and off they ran, full tilt UP the mountain. So fit.
Next we went trekking: the Annapurna Circuit hike. Here I am on top of the bus enroute to the starting point of the big trek. From on top of the bus, I asked hubby to buy me a pop (Canadian speak for soda) from a place advertising GOOD FOODING AND LODGING. I liked that sign, although I was feeling rather queasy by that time.
The trek was, of course, amazing. We did about 20 k per day, depending on weather and best stopping places and Tea Houses, which were known to our guide, Naba. We saw incredible beauty all around us.
The trail was often quite rough and sometimes included donkey trains — which were tricky because you had to be sure to get to the inside of the donkey train. They could easily bump you off the trail. That would be bad.
We would see tiny women carrying huge loads of wood on their backs. We even saw a porter carrying an injured person in a chair strapped to his back. Heading to the hospital many tens of kilometers away.
After a week or so, we got into the snow at elevation. This came with the obvious challenges due to the cold and wet and the need to be very careful about stepping properly so as not to slip off the trail or anything. Being Canadian, we are naturally pretty good about understanding the slipperiness of snow, but we were meeting other travelers from non-snow countries, particularly Ozzies and South Americans who were having trouble with it.
We finally made it to Thorung Phedi which sits at a cool 4,538 meters above sea level. This was the jumping off point for the Thorong La Pass with an elevation of 5,416 meters. There was a large group waiting for a clearing in the weather so as to safely set out for the pass. This was February – so, lots of snow. As a group gathered in the smokey dining hall with large tin cans full of smoking coals to warm us under the tables, we decided to leave at 4 a.m. after a breakfast at 3 a.m. There were about a dozen of us: a couple of Swedes, an American, a Japanese girl, a couple of Ozzies, a couple of New Zealanders and a Chinese guy, plus us two Canadians.
With headlamps blazing on some heads, we started up the mountain. Step, breath, step, breath. It was slow and steady. Would we ever get there? After a couple of hours, my hands were frozen. Our guide gave me his mittens which were toasty warm. He just smiled at me gently. He had done this pass many, many times.
We finally made it to a little shack which was at 5,000 meters. The weather worsened. The wind blew colder and stronger. Then ice-pellet snow began to pelt us like tiny sharp knives. We could tell that our attempt at the pass was not going to work today. Even if we could make it over, there was no way we were going to drag these other folks with us, and besides, that, there was six more hours down the other side, before the next village. The American woman with her state-of-the-art Arctic hiking gear and porter went on into the storm, but we turned back and headed down. A week later we met up with some of the folks from the snowy pass attempt. They told us they were waiting on us to decide about whether they would attempt the pass that day or not. ‘Why us?’ we asked. ‘Because you’re Canadian.’ they said. ‘You know snow and weather. If you weren’t going, neither were we.’
So we trekked down to the bottom, re-grouped in Pokhara for a couple of days and then went back up the other side for another ten days. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in Tatopani. Dean arranged for the baking of a cake for me. I was very surprised and pleased.
After trekking, we decided to head to the Royal Chitwan National Park for a week at sea level and with warmth and sunshine, plus the odd elephant or two.
We met this hilarious traveler who behaved just like Jerry Seinfeld and knew all the funny lines too. So, of course we spent time with him, walking about and telling stories, laughing and being silly.
A comment on the people of Nepal. We have yet to meet a nicer culture, although Cuban would be close. The Nepalese are cheerful, gentle, kind, strong and thoughtful. It was an honour to spend time in their exceptionally beautiful country.
We adopted a tabby kitten from a friend in Polar River, NWT. She was a tiny cat, but she was mighty. We named her Sahtu after the region by that name in the Arctic, but, perhaps we should have called her SAW-TOOTH, as one of my nephews would call her.
We were living in Inuvik then and in the midnight sun of the summer, insects grow freakishly large. Sahtu learned to hunt by catching the massive dragonflies in mid-flight. She would jump up and grab them in her two front paws. Then… she would eat them, turning her sweet head to one side and crunch as she used her chewing teeth to devour her catch.
The first night she was with us, she slept on the fridge. She was tiny and she had never seen two big dogs before. Within a matter of days, however, she was completely in charge of the dogs. We had an old couch that the three of them would share. Sahtu would put her two dainty paws on Delta
or on Grizzly and she would knead their abdomens. She would sometimes receive a nice big lick but never a growl. The odd time, not wanting her attentions, Delta or Grizz would quietly get up and vacate the couch to her. The dogs just loved her. They were ten times bigger, and could kill her with one powerful shake, or one absent minded bite, but they were mush in her green-eyed gaze.
We moved to Toronto after that, all five of us, and had this great three-story brick house at Birchmount and The Danforth. I am fond of saying that we were in the North Beaches, but those who know Toronto, know we were actually in Scarborough. There was a large, leafy shotgun fenced-in yard that the dogs would run the length of to chase their nemeses: SQUIRRELS, barking all the way. Never, of course, catching them. They should have recruited tiny Sahtu. She could catch anything. When Dean was studying and inevitably scrunching waste paper into balls, Sahtu would come a-running, the first time was out of curiosity at this new sound, the scrunching sound. Then Dean tossed the ball of paper high into the air and Sahtu executed a four foot high jump and twist to catch that ball of paper. After that, it became a game to her and a marvel to see. She had one lithe, muscular little body.
We had a little window over the kitchen sink that we would leave open for her to come and go. She was a happy little cat. We would put a bowl of food in a cupboard and we quickly taught her how to open the cupboard door. In she would go to eat in peace. Her food remained safe from the dogs.
The next year we moved to Virginia. Sahtu would come walking and hiking with us sometimes. My friend Nancy and her girls found it quite remarkable. We would be hiking through the woods and Sahtu would be following behind. We had a little bell on her which helped us keep track of her. Her cool feline presence added to the experience of hiking in the woods.
This one time, after we moved back from Virginia, to Milton, Ontario, we were living in an apartment out on highway 25 in the countryside. Going away for a few days, with our little guy, Leo and the two dogs, we decided to leave Sahtu with the affable young guy who lived in the apartment beneath us. We told him that if he left the low door window open, Sahtu could come and go and to simply keep her food and water full. After our weekend away, we returned to find what looked like blood and guts everywhere in the large front entryway and on the walls up to about four feet high. We found Buddy and asked what had happened, fearing the worst.
Eyes bulging out of his head to emphasis his words, he goes, ‘Man, that cat of yours is some kind of maniac hunter.’
‘What do ya mean? Little Sahtu?’ we asked, in harmony.
Still with the overly wide eyes, Buddy says, ‘Well, she may be tiny but she’s a force to be reckoned with! She caught a rabbit, bigger than her, and she jumped through the door window with it in her jaws! When I came out here it was half dead jumping around trying to escape her and it was bleeding EVERYWHERE. I had to get my hockey stick to kill it and put it out of it’s misery’. I am quite certain that Buddy had no idea what he was getting into upon agreeing to ‘watch’ Sahtu.
Another time, after we moved into our new house, we needed to have some electrical work done. My eldest brother Matt came over to do the work. Downstairs we had this huge basement which had a workroom at one end, which was unfinished with an open ceiling and a utility room at the other end, which also was unfinished with an open ceiling. From time to time, we would notice little Sahtu going up into the space between the ceiling and the main floor. She would often start in one end and come out the other, having done her rounds, looking at us as if to say, ‘Okay, my duty is done. Everyone can rest easy now.’
So, when Matt was having trouble telling a complex funny story while also pulling wire from the workroom to the utility room, he was getting frustrated because the wire just wouldn’t go through. His story came to a halt. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe Sahtu can pull the wire.’ So Dean ran to get her little metal bowl full of kibble and added a bit of fresh and fragrant roast beef. I tied a light-weight piece of cord onto her collar. We then put her up to the opening in the workroom ceiling and…in she went. Quickly, quickly, Dean, Matt and I then clambered through the rec room to the other open-ceiling room where we shook her food bowl, making the distinct sound that she knew and loved — we often shook her food bowl to entice her to come inside the house. Within a couple of moments guess who’s green eyes we could see coming? Little Sahtu. Matt was very impressed and for a few moments we tossed around the idea of putting little Sahtu on the payroll and hiring her out to pull wire at other jobs.
Another testament to her hunting prowess was the time our old Army friend, Nee asked if we could bring her along to his cottage in Haliburton because it had become infested with mice. ‘Absolutely!’ We arrived at the cottage, in tandem with Nee and Pauline. Just as Nee was unlocking the cottage door, I said, ‘Let’s put Little Sahtu inside first and see what happens.’
‘Really?’ Nee asked, skeptical. ‘Okay.’
We opened the door a crack and put Little Sahtu inside.
A split second later she came out with a wriggling mouse in her jaws and..she ATE it, head first. All but the tail and the gizzard. Such a delicate little thing. Pauline stood frozen with dainty fist pressed to her mouth, horrified.
All night long she battled the infestation in that cottage. There were minor crashes and thumps and bumps as she became the scourge of the Haliburton mice.
A few years later, we sadly lost our Little Sahtu. We aren’t absolutely sure, and we never found her body or any other evidence, but there was a massive bald eagle scoping her out as she herself hunted in a field.
In early July 1993 we rolled into Polar River, just north of the sixty-sixth parallel in the North West Territories. We had been driving for several hot and dusty days on the road across Canada, from Newfoundland to Alberta and then straight North.
We passed through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon and then a full day up the gravel Dempster Highway, two hours beyond the Arctic Circle.
We had driven in tandem for a week, driving ‘Betsy‘ our ’76 VW Van and our tiny Chevrolet Sprint we fondly called ‘Puny’. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t survive the trip. Her engine blew in Whitehorse and, on a deadline to get to the job, we sold her body to a small Franco mechanic with the longest, most gorgeous ringlet hair we had ever seen. His dark ringlets reached way down his back. He saw me admiring it and said with a lop-sided grin: ‘the ladees, estee, they love my hairs, they are curly, non?’ I just wanted to touch it to verify that it was real. Of course my mind flitted back to the Francos marching in perfect formation in Nijmegen a couple of years prior, and singing their old, soulful regimental songs – making the Anglo teams look rag-tag by comparison. Such was their pride and fervor for their culture.
Anyway, while in Whitehorse, we ate at a restaurant that is still there today: Sam N Andy’s. Interestingly and coincidentally, there is a very real chance we were served by my very good friend, Daisy, who lives and works in our current Nova Scotia town. One day, decades later, Daisy and I came upon this nugget of truth while reminiscing about our Northern days.
So, Dean had accepted a one-year contract position as Recreation Director for a tiny northern community of 150 First Nations Gwich’in people and roughly ten whites living in about 25 houses. The houses were built on pilings that were anchored into the permafrost. There was a general store, an all-levels school, a gym, two churches, a health centre and a community office on a hill overlooking the confluence of two icy rivers. The setting was incredibly beautiful. It felt like the final frontier.
The first thing we did was attend a community feast. But, to call it a feast was a bit of a stretch. It was simply hot dogs, pop and chips, but, we were so pleased to finally be there and soon to be on a payroll again, after more than a year, that we were all smiles and best intentions. The local children took our hands and tugged us along.
‘How long will you be here?’ Charlie asked. They don’t mince words, I thought. They also were intrigued with our little black lab puppy, ‘Dempster’ whom we had on a bright blue leash and matching collar. Full of questions: ‘Why is he on leash? Does he bite? Why does he have a name? Do you feed him fish? Will he stay outside?’ And, of course questions directed at me like: ‘Is there a baby in your belly? (It wouldn’t be until 1998, 1999 and 2001 that a baby would be in my belly.) Where are your babies?’ These questions were telling.
At the feast, we met Allie, the daughter of the former old Chief Henry. Allie was quite articulate and confident. She told us of her recent huge adventure, trekking in Nepal. Little did we know then that we would be trekking in Nepal the following year, thanks to the seed planted by Allie at this little feast.
The Chief of Polar River, Gwen, was dysfunctional, mostly ineffective, extremely high maintenance and neurotic. She expected Dean to be at the gym facility seven days a week, twenty-four hours per day. He was hired to do a job and she wanted him working non-stop.
Poor Dean, who is overly kind, was exhausted by her neediness in a couple of weeks. The gym, thankfully, was a very nice facility, a couple of minutes walk from our apartment, and was perched on the edge of the forest which was millions of acres of wilderness. It was a state of the art building with a huge gym and fully stocked kitchen as well as Dean’s new office. Equipment galore: new, mats, rackets, nets. New cross-country skis and new canoes came later when Dean applied for and received a grant for them, as well as money to hire an instructor to come up and teach canoeing. The instructor was this funny young guy from Manitoba. He would exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I am being paid to teach the natives how to canoe’.
One of the main weekly events at the gym was the Wednesday night BINGO. Here was my husband with over seven years of higher education and a former Army Captain, calling BINGO once per week. It was comical, if a little sad. It was a big event and it came with big winnings. Hundreds of dollars were won each week. I hung out in the kitchen, offering burgers and pop for sale, the proceeds going into the gym coffers.
Dean was mandated to teach one of the local women how to run the gym facility and how to manage the budget and maintenance. This young woman had four young children and a husband who played around on her. Consequently, she wasn’t fully available. Life in Polar River was both gritty and frustrating. Like the day when one of the young kids who were always at the gym (free babysitting) told Dean, ‘I don’t have to listen to YOU, White Man’. That child was about seven years old.
The first tragic thing to happen to us that year occurred on a gorgeous evening a month after we arrived. I had been walking our lab puppy Dempster who was scampering ahead of me over the beaten-earth pathways. I was just skipping along and watching bemusedly as he chased a rodent under a house. That was the last time I saw him alive. He didn’t come out from under the house… that I knew of.
I was calling and whistling. Nothing. Then, a dirty blue pick-up drove up. A young Gwich’in man, Billy, rolled down his window and with a smoke in his mouth said, ‘Your dog’s dead’. And drove off.
I ran down to the gravel road beneath the hill where I was standing, hoping it was a cruel joke, and this is what I saw: My precious black lab puppy lying on his side with a growing pool of blood around his puppy head. I began to cry bitterly, hugging myself and bending at the waist in my grief, one hand over my mouth.
Suddenly, I was feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this new place. How could this happen to me? How could he be so cruel? Looking back a quarter of century, I realize that I was dealing with culture shock and home-sickness, being so new in a very foreign place, albeit still in Canada.
The killing of our puppy didn’t mean much to young Billy because in his culture, they didn’t keep dogs as pets the way we do in the South. Someone went and fetched Dean and he came and wrapped his strong arms around me consoling me. Someone picked up Dempster in an old blanket and we drove down the Water Lake Road and Dean buried him while I sat in the car, still too upset to move, still in mild shock.
A few days later, on a sunny afternoon, a nice local man brought us a very cute puppy from his new litter. Our new puppy had pointy ears and muzzle. He was fuzzy black and white, wolfish looking and stunk of fish – the only kind of food he knew. We called him Delta, after the River Delta where he was born.
Dean worked away at his position and I picked up some work, just finding odd things to do that no one else would. I made pots of soup and trays of sandwiches for Band Meetings. I took people to the big town of Inuvik for shopping and medical appointments. I typed minutes to various meetings. Then I was offered a full-time position in the Community Office doing payroll, payables and receivables.
Later, I picked up the part-time position of Medical Centre Coordinator. There was this beautiful Medical Centre equipped with two examination rooms, incredible instruments and medications and a locked cupboard of narcotics. There was also a small apartment meant for a visiting doctor or nurse.
One day, I was out walking when someone ran up to me saying that little Suzy had been mauled by a dog. This was the second tragic thing to go down. I ran as fast I could to find her laying just out of reach of a big, mean Husky that was chained in the backyard of someone’s house.
She was bleeding profusely from the many open wounds in her legs. I screamed at anyone to go get Dean and to call an ambulance to come from the neighbouring larger community, Pierson, which was an hour away. I prayed, spoke calmly to her and pressed rags on her wounds until Dean rolled up in our vehicle. To this day, I do not know where her parents, friends or relatives were even though we were in the middle of town. She was eight.
We drove as fast as we could toward the Pierson Health Centre and the ambulance met us halfway. We transferred little Suzy into the ambulance and then followed it. She was put on the medical table and her ripped clothing was removed and as I watched the doctor poured hydrogen peroxide into her open wounds. She was laying on her belly repeating, ‘Owieeeee! Owieeeee!’ It occurred to me that this little girl was no stranger to pain. She received several hundred stitches to close her wounds. A year later, after returning from Nepal, I would find myself managing the medical clinic in Inuvik and working for that same doctor that stitched her wounds.
As Recreation Director, Dean had a major event to plan and carry out: the Spring Carnival which included many different competitions including snowmobile races and dogsled races. He spent days planning and coordinating this major event which would attract many visitors from out of town, and which had several thousand dollars in prize money. Very early on the day of the big event, we were still in bed sleeping when the phone rang. I picked it up: ‘Hello?’
‘Jordy’s dead’, said a voice.
Holy shit. ‘Dean!’ I screamed, ‘Get up! Jordy’s dead.’
We spent the next several hours sorting out Jordy’s body at his house. The RCMP came from Pierson and asked me all manner of lame questions. It was pretty obvious, if you had a nose, to detect how he died. The poor tortured soul smelled like a distillery mixed with a chemical waste plant. He died sitting up on his couch.
Next, we took his body by truck to the medical centre and laid it out on one of the beds. I had to stay at the medical centre until the coffin guy from Inuvik showed up. Also, two of Jordy’s female relatives came in to clean up his body in preparation for burial.
Despite the tragedy, it was an astoundingly beautiful sunny spring day and snow was melting rapidly. I was happy that Dean would have a successful carnival because of it, but the warmth wasn’t doing anything for Jordy’s body odor issue. For a while I talked to the coffin guy and his wife on the deck at the medical centre (there was no being inside with good ole Jordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.
When we finally left Polar River in July of 1994, we were happy to go – we had big plans to go travelling, but, we had many mixed feelings about the North. Yes, the Gwich’in of Polar River had hired us, but, did we really have any business nosing our way into a tiny First Nations community, for a year? Did we do any good at all, or did we just cause surreptitious upset, undermining and questioning of the old ways?
I really don’t know for sure but, I think that the people of Polar River could most likely run their own gym (especially now that Dean had taught his protege), their own BINGO nights, their own health centre and do their own payroll, if push came to shove. I think that maybe they had this idea that we Southerners knew more and could organize better but, we were left feeling that it would be best for them to leave our Southern ways and instead, get back to a more traditional way of life.
We had spent some time with the Old Chief Henry. He would come to our apartment door and want a cup of tea. He told us many stories of the old days and spending time on the trap line, drying fish and getting caribou for the whole community, going by dog sled over the snow. The traditional jobs that would be carried out by the women and the young men. How the children would play, tumbling and were cherished and spoiled by their Elders. Traditional feasts and celebrations. His eyes would glisten with the memories behind them. I was in awe of this man who had lead his people for over three decades. If I had a wish for the Northern Peoples it would be to go back to those ways and to embrace them once again, even if just little by little. Perhaps that is impossible, but, I’m gonna wish it anyway.
It was 1997 and we were living just North of the North Beaches of Toronto. Yes, okay, we were actually in Scarberia, but, whatEVER. We were there because Dean was attending a school called iti: Information Technology Institute, downtown Toronto. (We had just spent three years above theArcticCircle.)
With my two older sisters and Mom just a couple of hours drive away, and me without a job, I would travel down there each week or so to visit them and their families as well as to go see Mom. Mom was in a nursing home suffering with Pick’s Disease (basically, the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s) and was almost completely non-verbal by that time. She was, however, in fine physical condition, a fact that played with our minds. She could walk for ten miles, no problem, yet, she didn’t know us and she couldn’t speak. It was hard.
Mom loved chocolate milkshakes. I would pick one up and while she worked away on it silently, I would drive to a park so we could go for a walk. Those times were very sweet but heart-breaking at the same time.
In those days, we were all reading Deepak Chopra: QUANTUM HEALING; THE SEVEN
SPIRITUAL LAWS OF SUCCESS; AGELESS BODY, TIMELESS MIND; and PERFECT HEALTH. Eva, Amy and I would discuss the concepts at length and do our very best to incorporate the thinking into our lives. So, when it became known that Deepak Chopra would be speaking at a nearby venue, we were overjoyed and quite excited about the idea of attending his talk. We got tickets and eagerly awaited the big day.
(Now a days, good ole Deepak is friends with OPRAH and ergo, thus, therefore quite famous.)
On the day of the Deepak talk, I drove the couple of hours to Eva’s house and arrived at her door to find her in the middle of finishing off a second batch of her world famous (okay, not WORLD famous, but potentially…) home-made buttertarts. They were little individual pastry cups filled with a gooey mixture of butter, raisins and brown sugar. Mom had taught Eva how to bake when Eva was a girl. Mom had been an amazing baker and could whip up a pie or a fruit crumble, a cake or a batch of cookies pretty quickly, from scratch. Let’s not forget Mom’s sugar pie. Neighbours would lean in and whisper to each other about it, their knees weakening as they spoke. It was mouthwatering and the stuff of dreams. ￼Never under estimate the power of a French-Canadian’s sweet tooth!
I asked Eva why she wasn’t ready and she explained that there was a death in the family of a friend. She needed to drop off some buttertarts to the grieving family after the talk. Could I take a tray in my car and she would pick up our other sister Amy and meet at the venue. Okay, sure, I said. I took the tray of precious buttertarts. That was my first mistake. I laid them on the passenger seat. That was my second mistake. Backing out of her driveway, I headed down to the talk. It was about half an hour away. The buttery sweet smell in my car was overwhelmingly mouthwatering. My stomach began to grumble. I salivated a little as I looked at the tray of buttertarts. Oh my they were beautiful little items. The aroma of the fresh baked, still warm buttertarts was torture. Breakfast had been hours ago.
Playing the radio, I tried to distract myself by singing loud and off key to all the radio songs like Tanya Tucker’s remembering our family sing-songs featuring this very song:
Delta Dawn what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say he was ameetin’ you here today To take you to his mansion in the sky She’s forty one and her daddy still calls her baby All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy ‘Cause she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand Lookin’ for a mysterious dark-haired man….
It wasn’t helping. Now there was drool spilling out of the corner of my mouth. I pulled up to the parking lot attendant window and was permitted into the lot. I then reached over and grabbed a buttertart, and,
Oh my god it was good. It was incredible!!! My eyes rolled back into my head. The pastry was flaking all over my lips and down my chin. But wait, was that Deepak CHOPRA getting out of his car right there???!!! Holy shit. It WAS Deepak. I swiped at my mouth. I stopped the car, and while chewing furiously, rolled down the window. Deepak Chopra was walking over to me because I was waving at him with both arms like an idiot. He probably thought I was choking and that he would have to save me. He is an M.D. after all. My mouth bulged with buttertart. My lips could barely contain the delicious crumbs. The dark and mysterious Deepak was at my car door but I still could not speak due to the god-damned delicious buttertart that I was still masticating furiously.
I did the only thing I could do.
I opened my car door.
Climbed out and threw my arms around Deepak Chopra, getting a whiff of his spicey, exotic cologne. Then…moving slightly back from him, I looked into his deep, piercing, intelligent yet peacefully dark eyes as my crumb-coated lips somehow met his.
He was obviously accustomed to women throwing themselves at him. He wasn’t the least bit flustered.
At this point, the remainder of the buttertart was in my cheek and I was able to say something completely asinine:
Oh my god, I LOVE your work, Deepak!! You are an amazing writer!! You are doing wonderful things! You have helped me so much! If I wasn’t happily married…
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Okay, okay. Calm yourself.
His hands motioned me into relaxation and I nodded and smiled at him with crumbs falling out of my mouth. (Attractive? Most definitely Not!) I moved my car to a spot and berated myself for making such a fool of myself.
His talk was riveting. He stood at the edge of the stage and for two hours spoke about his books and his theories on life and health. I was really glad, by then, that I had eaten a second buttertart after kissing Deepak Chopra on the lips.
At eight months pregnant, my friend Nancy asked me if wanted to go on a road trip with her to her hometown of Virginia Beach from Leesburg, some four and a half hours away. It was summertime, her two girls were out of school and she wanted to take them down to see their grandparents. We piled into her SUV with snacks and a cooler of drinks, including my ever present bottle of prune juice. You see, at that time, I had been told that one of the keys to a healthy pregnancy was to ensure a daily movement…of… well, the bowels. Always a sucker for health tips, I grasped onto said tip and sure enough, I would have a glass of cool prune juice every morning of my 270 day pregnancy term (I haven’t touched it again, since). Keeping that in mind, when I awoke on the second day of our trip and being out of routine, forgot to take my beloved prune juice, I was more than a little worried by mid-morning when nothing had, as of yet, moved.
Nancy was a nurse. She understood my worry. She asked her youngest daughter, Kerry, to bring me a glass of prune juice. We were seated on the patio, just taking a break after a stroll around the neighbourhood. Out comes eight-year old Kerry with quite a large glass of prune juice. Where I would normally have about four ounces, this was more like ten. Feeling rather touched to be served, I graciously accepted Kerry’s offering and, what the hell, drank it down, hearing Mom’s voice in my head: Waste not, want not, Morgan.
Not long thereafter, Nancy offered to take all of us for a walk on Virginia Beach, about 20 minutes away. We again all got into her vehicle and off we went. Nancy was pointing things out all the way with a look of nostalgia on her face: there was her old school; her old shopping area; her old hangout; her old favorite fast-food joint; her friend’s house. I could feel the vibes of her memories and could almost see a youthful Nancy running along beside us as we slowly toured the neighourhood.
Onto the highway next and up the ramp and over the bridge. Suddenly, my bowels started to feel odd. I must be imaging it, I thought. Everything is fine. Everything is fine, I thought. Next, out seeped a silent but deadly one with the automatic instantaneous human reactions: windows rolled down; four noses into the clean wind; worried eyes; hands over mouths. Sorry, sorry. I seem to be having a reaction to something. I told Nancy and the girls.
My guts churned and roiled and tiny stink-bomb expulsions continued. A few miles later I was bent in two holding my very pregnant middle. Which was difficult in itself. It was like bending over at basketball.
Oh my god Nancy, I have take a dump right now!!!
Nancy told me to hang in there and to let her know when it was a true emergency. She clearly did not understand. My pants would be soiled in a matter of minutes if I didn’t get out of the vehicle and onto a toilet. All I could see out the windows though, was a guard rail and what looked to be a fairly seedy area of the city.
This is truly an emergency, Nancy. I see an Arby’s. Can we go in there?
By this time I wasn’t talking very clearly because I had every part of my anatomy CLENCHED.
Nancy said, Morgan, that’s a really bad part of town. Are you sure?
Yes, Nancy. Hurry!
Nancy pulled in and out I got, walking funny into the Arby’s due to my full-body CLENCH coupled with my huge baby belly. I found the Lady’s room which was just inside the door. In I went and closed and latched the door. Maternity pants down and onto the cool toilet seat. What happened next was not pretty.
A bomb went off into that toilet bowl.
At that point, the couple of other ladies who had been in the bathroom, made a hasty departure with an OH MY GOD, just outside the door. I can hear you. I thought. Whatever, I had to get this out.
I was on the toilet for a few more minutes and was feeling a whole heck of a lot better. Washing well then waddling out of the Arby’s, there was Nancy with wild eyes, her driver’s side window cracked open pushing coins out to a Rastafarian-looking guy who was obviously quite down on his luck.
Jenny unlocked my door and I hopped in and off we went to the beach.
When Dean and I were honourably released from the military in 1992, (see post A Posting to Germany and a Lifelong Romance 🥂) we brought back a 1976 VW Van with us from Germany and called her “Betsy’. Like the one in the picture above (from google images) but our Betsy was dark green. We knew that travelling would be part of our lives, having already seen a lot of Europe and enjoying the experience of embracing other cultures and locals but, before seeing the rest of the wide world, we wanted to experience our huge, beautiful country first. We would travel every Province and each Territory with the mandate of seeing at least one National Park in each of them.
We spent the spring with Dean’s parents in Newfoundland, which was sweet, as it gave us some quality time with truly wonderful and good people.
To be in the vicinity of my father-in-law when he laughed was magical. He was like an elf with a sweet spirit and kind nature. When he would laugh, his shoulders would come up and his body would shake while his laughing smile took over his whole face. One couldn’t help but be drawn in.
Dean’s mom was an incredibly strong, kind and thoughtful matriarch. She worked tirelessly and subtly for her family (which was ever expanding with more and more grand and great grand-children), supporting them with Sunday Jigg’s dinners, knitted and crocheted sweaters, table cloths, toques, mitts, socks, home-made pies, jams, chow and beets, baby-sitting and advice.
Neither of them was given to showy acts of affection like hugs or spoken I love yous, but their love was obvious and ever present and seen in the way they looked at you, asked if you had had enough to eat or in the manner they would engage in conversation or try to help with a concern. Dean’s parents were the best kind of folks and it was my absolute pleasure to meet and live with them that spring. I could see why my Dean was such a wonderful young man.
We had spent hours getting Betsy ready for the trip. We wanted to be completely self-sufficient. We had tons of storage space in her. Under the seat in the back we neatly stored many containers of dried foods: a variety of beans, rice, lentils, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dehydrated vegetables, coffee, hot chocolate and sauces. In the front top area we stored two dozen gallon jugs of water. There was also a coleman stove, fuel, pots, plates, utensils, knives and a cutting board. We packed her with our clothes, laundry soap, wash basin, books, candle lantern, down duvet, pillows, maps, hiking gear and more. We were kitted out AND we had several bottles of preserves as well as home-made wine and Bailey’s thanks to our sister-in-law’s suggestion. (We would have never thought of that. Ever.)
We had already seen lots of Newfoundland and had hiked several hikes at Gros Morne and Blow Me Down so off we went to the ferry and arrived in Cape Breton and pointed Betsy up the Cabot Trail. Its a highway trail that travels the edge of cliff for a few hundred kms with breath-taking scenery of the big blue below.
I have to say, the drive was terrifying. I would lean way over toward Dean as he was driving, away from the certain death of driving off that cliff.
Next was P.E.I. where we camped on a red sand beach and, in the pouring rain went to a pub in Charlottetown to celebrate our anniversary. A big indulgence, since we were on a very tight budget but which was quite lovely due to the rain and our special occasion.
On to New Brunswick where we stayed at Fundy National Park and walked on the ocean floor, marveling at the huge high tides, not knowing that a decade and a bit later we would be living in a tidal town just across the water (see post: A Simple East-Coast Life ) Next was Quebec where we visited La Maurice National Park and where we had picked up an old friend and her two pre-school boys to travel and camp with us for a couple of days. That was eye-opening. The boys never stopped and consequentially, nor did their Mom. We had been enjoying such decadence, doing whatever we pleased. Now learning that, as a parent, it’s not all about you. Who knew? It was a valuable lesson to behold.
At another park in Quebec we did an overnight canoe trip which was very scenic and physically challenging during the portages but, horrible in the torrential rain for hours.
In Ontario, of course there were many visits to make to family members and friends residing there. It was lovely to be greeted, questioned and welcomed and to bathe and launder our clothes was nice too. In Ontario we visited Point Pelee National Park with it’s long boardwalk that traverses some wet lands on the way to the sandy beach of Lake Erie. It is the southern most tip of Canada.
From there we heading North and wow, Ontario is a big province. We headed up to muskeg country and then across the top of Lake Superior. We stopped in an unmanned provincial campground and met a couple of wonderful travelers. A Dutch guy biking across Canada and a 65 year old Retired US Naval Captain who was traveling and sleeping in his station wagon: John Shaughnessy. We cooked up a simple pasta meal and invited them to join us at our picnic table. It was a lovely evening of travel talk. When we offered more food to the Dutch guy, he accepted. John Shaughnessy would say: ‘No, no. You go right ahead.’ Good answer, right?Another thing we liked about John Shaughnessy is how he would greet new people. It could be Joe Gas Pump Man, he would stick out his hand and say: ‘Hello. John Shaughnessy. How are you?’ It was fascinating comparing military stories with him. We had just gotten out of the Army and this was a retired US Naval Captain. That is four gold stripes to our two. To us, that was something. He was bright, adventurous, charming and intelligent. We would see him several more times over the next few months, partly because we encouraged him to travel our way. We all got along famously.
In Manitoba we visited Riding Mountain National Park and in Saskatchewan – Grasslands National Park. One night, in Saskatchewan, we pulled over at the edge of a vast farmer’s field. There wasn’t a soul or a vehicle around. We could see for hours, so we knew that for sure. We decided to camp there for the night and so, popped up the top of Betsy. We used to call the top of Betsy upstairs, as in, I’m going upstairs to bed. Watching the sun set in the West, we thought we had it all: each other; a wonderful adventure; good health; good humour (most of the time); and just when we thought that list was complete, we looked over to the other horizon to see the moon rising in the East. Such a big beautiful sky in the prairies. That was the first time I had ever seen both orbs in the sky.
In Alberta we
visited Elk Island National Park and it was here that we encountered a very large bison in the woods. We had been simply hiking along quietly, on a hot, twisty trail through woods of young saplings. Suddenly, looking up, we saw a huge snorting shape quietly staring at us and a bit beyond him, his harem lying on the ground. We retreated, rather hastily and then breathed a sigh of relief.
From there we headed north into to the bottom of North West Territories, stopping at Fort Simpson where, with John Shaughnessy, flew into Nahanni National Park in a tiny Cessna aircraft, puking all the way. No kidding. The updrafts of warm air batted us around crazily. Thank goodness for the airsick bag. The scenery was gorgeous but I, for one, was way too nauseous to enjoy it. Once on the ground we hiked into the falls. Spectacular and quite noisy. I immediately dunked my head in the freezing cold water, aiding the departure of the nausea. I should say here that John Shaughnessy sure as heck did not get sick.
Next we meandered our way to Alaska and decided upon a truly physically challenging adventure: hiking the the Chilkoot Trail at Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park starting in Skagway, Alaska and ending three to five days later in the ghost town of Bennett, BC. It is the trail that had been used in the 1890s by the Goldrush crowd heading over White Pass to find their fortunes in gold. John Shaughnessy bid us farewell, as it was not part of his plan to do such a hike. We would miss him. The hike was challenging for sure. The photo is of the prospectors in the late 1800s who were risking life and limb in the hopes of finding gold. When I look at that angle they are hiking at, carrying huge loads, in ancient gear, I think: hopeful desperation. Many died horrible deaths due to harsh conditions, starvation, tooth decay, frostbite and many other unpleasant issues. The line formed by the ant-sized black dots in the photo are heading up over the pass after having gone through The Scales. At The Scales their amount of supplies were weighed and assessed. They had to have one ton of goods per person!! They had to have certain survival items, like a tent, frying pan and so many pounds of flour, sugar etc before being allowed over the pass. Dean and I had a back pack each. We were good. Three days later, Dean and I walked into the final camp ground of the hike. It had been a physical test but it also had been eye candy and interesting to traverse the same path as those old fortune seekers. We also met Michelle and Mike from Oz, whom we visited a couple of years later. (See post: We’re Not in Canada Anymore…this is Oz (age 28)).
From British Columbia to Kluane National Park in the Yukon and then to Banff, Alberta where we enjoyed the hub-bub of that city. It was in Banff that we were pulled over by the police which was puzzling because we had done nothing wrong. The Mountie leaned into Betsy and asked: ‘Are you Dean Joyce?’ Dean’s face fell. If a cop in Alberta knew your name, that couldn’t be good. ‘You need to call home as soon as possible.’
Finding a pay phone and making the call, we were informed of the sad and tragic news that Dean’s father had suffered a massive heart attack. We flew to Newfoundland the next day. After quite a battle, Dean’s father rallied and lived another ten wonderful years.
We arrived in Melbourne, Australia in 1994 and kicked around the city for a few days, staying with friends we had met on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska (Across Canada in Betsy (age 26) 🇨🇦. But, wanting to experience the true outback, we decided to take the historical Gahn train to the centre.
So, onto the train we got, bound for Alice Springs. On the train, I had some sort of sudden mucous problem and water poured from my nose and eyes. Dean cracked open a smuggled-in bottle of red and after a few sips the mucous stopped flowing. (We don’t usually go too far without a nice bottle of red.)
The next day, we stepped off the train into a brick wall of heat. Just imagine walking into an oven. Now add about 300 degrees and you have the heat that is Alice Springs. We found a hostel where we rented a small trailer, and spent some time slowly walking around and seeing the sights. There were many aborigines about and we saw a few homes with living room furniture out in the yard where people would sit. One evening we decided to go to a movie and just by chance, the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert was opening. It had been filmed in Alice Springs and starred Guy Pierce. It was a bizarre film which the Ozzies in the cinema found hilarious. Us, not so much.
Next we decided to hitch-hike to the coast. Some 2776 km away and most of it through arid Australia. We had no idea that arid Australia is deadly. We simply could not fathom it, coming from Canada. Arid Australia is brutally hot, sometimes 50 degrees Celsius and has very few water sources and very little traffic. There are biting ants and other insects, kangaroos, venomous snakes and spiders and the odd dingo about. In Oz, when you see a spider or a snake, you have to assume it is venomous because most are.
We were very lucky, once again. One of the first drivers to see us hitching pulled over. It was an 77 year old man named Lockey. He helped us put our huge packs in his small Toyota van. Dean took a seat in the front and I climbed into the single rear seat in the back and immediately became a river of sweat. No air conditioning except the two front windows which were perpetually down and circulating hot air. It took us five days (five days!!!) to travel through the Outback to the east coast. We camped each night in the free campsites that Australia nicely provides so that folks don’t parish in the outback.
Lockey drove slowly, necessarily. The scenery was mostly desert-type scrub and four foot high phallic shaped ant hills formed from red sand. Now and then we would see a troop of kangaroos. And the odd bloated dead cow carcass. We were told that the cattle ranches are so vast that there is no way the farmers could fence them, so sometimes cows would get killed by road trains. Oookay. Road trains are very, very long tractor trailer trucks with accordion-type mid-sections. It was not fun to be passed by a road train and have to man-handle the steering wheel so as not to be sucked under it.
We would stop in the mid-afternoon for a bite to eat, usually after getting gas. The little gas stations were remote but had everything you could possibly want AND a huge cage of cockatiels and parrots. We would order a sandwich or a burger and a beer. Invariably, the sandwich would arrive with not only sliced beet (yes beet) on it but sometimes grated carrot and a sunny-side up egg sitting on top. Huh?
Where ARE we??!
Arriving in Bundaberg, Lockey offered for us to stay with him for a few days. We all got along so well and Lockey was very funny. He was always making sounds like errrrrk when he opened the fridge door or zzzzzip when he did up his jacket zipper. Lockey had several geckos that were friendly and lived with him informally in his house trailer. They were so cute and made little chirping sounds that Lockey would imitate perfectly. Lockey told us he did 100 push ups per day to stay fit. He had been a Air Navigator in the war. That’s saying something. Lockey’s house trailer was in a trailer park with many other residents. There was a common washing room and shower house close by in one direction and the short trail to the beach in the other direction. We were offered the back of his station wagon to sleep on a foam mattress.
One day we decided to do some laundry. It was dusk as we walked to the washing house. Suddenly there was loud cackling from the tree top above us, almost like an old married couple cackling at a funny tv show or a progressive bridge game. Looking up we shivered to see two flying foxes, yes FOX bats that can fly!!! having an upside-down gander back at us and cackling over it.
Holy shit! Where ARE we??
The next day Dean went for a nice long morning run before the sun became too hot. He was down a dirt road a few miles from Lockey’s place when he realized that he was being watched by an seven foot tall kangaroo. He stopped dead in his tracks and with heart racing, tried to figure out what to do. He could not read the roo who was now lazily scratching his chest, licking his lips and staring at Dean. We had been warned to not corner a roo because they will quite easily lean back on their tail and kick you into next week. Dean lowered his eyes and smoothly backed away from the giant roo. Next he ran to the toilets as fast as he could.
Lockey was a retired motor mechanic and we were in need of a car. We decided that trying to get around Australia, which is huge and mostly empty in the centre, we would need a car. Lockey helped us find a very sensible white Toyota Corona. The next day we drove it to a large shopping mall and went inside to watch a movie. Coming out, we were dismayed to find my day pack missing from the rear floor. My passport was in that day pack so, now this was a problem if I ever wanted to get home to Canada.
We drove to a bank of payphones by the side of the road. Is was dusk… Dean was on the phone with the Canadian Consulate when suddenly the sky darkened with some very large entity moving over us. We cowered and looked up to see a sight that will be etched in my brain forever…HUNDREDS of flying foxes moving as in a herd overhead. Holy shit! Where ARE we???! We were informed later that the flying foxes were heading to the fruit orchards. They eat fruit all night. They are fruitatarians. I am not sure if that is a technical term. I am just happy they don’t drink blood or anything.
After we visited the consulate and retrieved my passport, that the kind thief must have sent in we continued with making plans for our next stop. We liked the idea of heading up to Bowen to work on a farm for a bit. Off we went after many many thanks to our host Lockey.
We arrived in Bowen and found a trailer to rent in a park by the sea. Oh my, it was pretty. We only found out later that there was no swimming in the sea due to the box jellyfish, the most deadly creatures in the world. It was box jelly season. Where ARE we??!
We visited a few different farms and had a day here and a day there picking tomatoes, rock melons (cantaloupe), capsicums (green peppers). It was hard bloody work out in the elements.
There were acres and acres of low growing fruit and not one single real shade tree. The water in my precious water bottle was HOT. I thought I was pretty tough but, nowhere near as tough as those career pickers. To say the sun was brutal is a serious understatement. One day, I laid under our car for shade during break. The Oz sun is the very reason why we decided to not live there. It’s just too oppressive. We were finally offered a position working in the barn. It was hard work too, but so much more civilized for we Northern, white-skinned types from cold Canada. It was in the barn that we met the couple who had just returned from India. They told us of the exotic country and amazing food and how they speak English and also how inexpensive it was to travel there compared to Western countries like Oz. We wanted to go there!
We worked in the tomato farm barn for a couple of months and put almost every penny away to save for our tickets to and adventures in India. The only things we would buy were the Ozzie meat pies (omg the BEST thing ever — and they are square just so you remember where you are while eating them. We even discussed importing them to Canada. So good.) We would also buy beer and, okay, groceries. The farmer we worked for would often send us all home with a wonderfully fresh watermelon. We would devour half of it and put the other out for the parrots. Within moments, several brightly coloured parrots would be perched on the watermelon and eating it. Near our trailer, there was an abandoned lot with a mango tree just begging to be picked. We would gather a whole bag of ripe ones and the gorge on them. More delicious than words!
After leaving Bowen, Queensland, we hightailed it to Caines then said, why the hell did we do that? It was horrible with brutal humidity levels up there. From there we went south and climbed Mount Kosciusko and camped for a night at the top. It is only about 2200 m high, (Everest is 8800 m by comparison). We also went to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef for a day and then spent a couple of days in Sydney.
We managed to sell our car for the same amount we bought it for. Score. The sale was touch and go for a bit though because on our way to motor vehicles with our buyer, much to my horror, steam began to come out of the front dash vents. What the??? I was sitting in the back and began to surreptitiously pound Dean’s left arm. He didn’t see what I was seeing. Nor did our buyer. And then the steam stopped and it was all fine. Heart attack!
When we finally went to purchase our flight tickets to India, because of Chinese New Year, we could not fly into India. We could only fly into Nepal. We shrugged: when a couple of billion people celebrate Chinese New Year, it can cause jam ups in the airlines. So, we flew into Nepal and it was one of the best things we ever did. As the Dalai Lama says: remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
We arrived in Kathmandu on Chinese New Year of 1995…but…
that’s another story…
Before you leave, here is the link to a blog with an incredible Ozzy bird performing for his mate. Too cool! Link
On boxing day of 1996 we packed up our tiny little three cylinder Chevrolet Sprint hatchback aptly named Puny, put our two big northern dogs in the backseat (Delta and Grizzly), and started our 7000 km, eight day trip south west to Toronto. Dean was enrolled in the very expensive nine month intensive Information Technology program at a downtown Toronto school called Information Technology Institute (iti). We had spent three years above the Arctic Circle living in Polar River first and then Inuvik after that. We had had good employment and a great group of friends but, it was time to move on and start something new.
As we rolled out of Inuvik on the Dempster Highway, in the dead and dark of winter and -35 Celsius, we were not unaware of the risk of travel for the first 800 kms of this road trip south to Dawson City Yukon with just one gas station at Eagle Plains, about half way. The moonlight shone above us and lighted the way over North America’s most northerly and remote highway, which in fact is actually a gravel road. It was a good omen, I thought, that moon. It was sure to be a fine trip with a moon like that shining above us and leading us on.
Just to give some idea of our situation in the car. We had huge Canada Goose parkas on. Large layered mittens, a toque each and Sorel boots rated to -60. It being so bitingly cold outside, our little car could not keep up. We just broke even for heat, which means, we were quite chilly for the first couple of days. Few people had cell phones back then. A friend in Inuvik had given us his cell phone in case we ran into an emergency.
Not long into the trip, we realized that our front windshield was frosting up, even though the fan and heat were turned on high. It didn’t take much to figure out that the fan had stopped working. Our focal point out the front of the car was rapidly diminishing. I wanted to turn back and get it fixed. Dean said no, we could do that in Dawson. Just then Delta and Grizzly lunged into the front seat, their heads and shoulders anyway, because they had sensed a heard of caribou moving methodically across the dim tundra. Our wee vehicle was surrounded by their graceful presence. (Like the picture below, only dark outside). We felt honoured to be in the midst of their serenity. Delta and Grizzly just wanted to give chase. On we rolled.
We pulled into Dawson City Yukon and it was -45 degrees Celcius. Nothing was open in town so we retreated to the corner of the highway and stayed in a motel there. Carefully plugging in our car so that there would be every chance that it would start in the morning. After a satisfying turkey dinner, hot shower and good night’s sleep we breakfasted and clambered back into Puny. Dead. Upon examination of the cord we found that someone had stepped on it (probably me) and with the cold, it had snapped. Useless. We would need a ‘cold start’ at $50. It worked and we rolled out of Dawson on square tires due to the extreme cold. We were Whitehorse bound with the hopes of getting our heater fan fixed. In Whitehorse, at Crappy (a Player family nickname for Canadian Tire) we were able to get it repaired. The service department stayed open late for us and were very kind.
The most remarkable thing about the rest of the trip, which we were already aware of due to several cross-country drives, was the shear vastness and emptiness of our big beautiful country. The Prairies were endless and so windy that Puny used twice as much fuel as usual. The Prairies in the winter had white-outs and dangerous snow drifts right across the highway. Dean, my Newfoundlander, is an amazing winter driver so I wasn’t too worried, really.
We finally pulled into Toronto seven days later. Our friend Nee was home and we crashed in with him. He had found us an apartment right behind his on St. Clair. Excitedly we went to look at it. Sadly and disappointingly though, it was little more than a slum and was a serious firetrap. It just would not do. We had stupidly paid the slum-landlord first and last month rent, from afar, sight unseen. Bad idea. When we met her she tried to tell us the place was fine: rotten wood floors, drafty old windows, old, dirty paint, crappy old kitchen and ancient wiring.
We told her we wanted our money back.
She and Dean were in the kitchen and I was standing in the kitchen doorway. She stamped her foot and said this is ridiculous and tried to get past me through the door. I stood my ground and filling up the doorway space said not sweetly: Where do you think you’re going? She turned around and filled out an ad for the apartment telling us that if it were to rent, we would get our money back. Next, we called the fire marshal who declared the place a fire hazard. We got our money back.
The next day we found a 2.5 story brick house with a great kitchen, hardwood floors, attic study and a fenced yard in the North Beaches at Birchmount and the Danforth. It was ideal and cheaper at $900 a month.
Dean started his program and worked like a dog, ending in nine months as the Valedictorian of his class. While he did his program, I decided to volunteer at my sister, Eva’s camp as much as possible. We ended up putting on a week-long boys’ camp which was a lot of work but truly successful and rewarding for everyone involved. I also helped with small maintenance jobs, errands, painting and cleaning duties. It was a very good summer and it was so fun to be with my big sister and at the camp again.
In the fall we bought our first little house in Milton, Ontario upon the advice of a savvy Real Estate agent and Newfoundlander with an office in Campbellville. Our side-split bungalow was on an older street with tall trees. Dean had gotten a job as a technology trainer and was traveling a lot. While he did that, I fashioned a small apartment in our basement and rented it to a nice young couple. Next, there was an offer by Dean’s company for us to move to Virginia. We sold our house to the first people who walked through and off we went to Leesburg, Virginia. Nine months later, Leo was born. We were over the moon until…but that’s another post.
I would shuffle down the hall, stooped over and drooling. Aware, but unaware. This was haldol or haloperidol – a strong anti-psychotic drug with tremendous side-effects.
As defined on-line by the Royal College of Psychiatrists: Postpartum Psychosis is a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days or weeks after having a baby. Symptoms vary and can change rapidly. They can include high mood (mania), depression, confusion, hallucinations and delusions. Postpartum psychosis is a psychiatric emergency.
My pregnancy with Leo was text book: I took daily naps; walked gently with the dogs; swam; ate good food and drank lots of water; no caffeine; no alcohol. We were living in Virginia because my husband Dean had accepted a job there with a dot com start-up. His office was in Reston. We found a very sweet two-story farm house with softwood floors, a front porch with a white wooden swing and a white picket fence. Our house was in the wee village of Purcellville, about 40 minutes East of Reston. Dean would go to the office every day and I would volunteer at various places: the library, long-term care and a thrift shop in Leesburg. After volunteering, I would walk the dogs, perhaps go for a swim at the community pool, take a nap and then prepare us a nice meal for supper. It was a lovely nine months.
One day, close to the due date in early August, with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, and with me as big as a house and quite uncomfortable, we decided to go to the county fair. While sitting at a picnic table in the shade, I felt something strange going on in my abdomen. Could this be labour? Yes. By eleven o’clock that night, the labour pains were in full force and they did not give up for hours and hours. My mid-wife and my doula arrived and my mid-wife examined me. I was at 4 cm. In fact, over the next twelve hours, I remained at 4 cm. By that time I was howling in pain with each contraction. We had wanted to have Leo at home, but that dream was quickly fading. My mid-wife told me that Leo was sunny-side up or, posterior in orientation.
The back pain was horrible. I had Dean, our doula and the mid-wife pounding on my back and hamstrings because it seemed to help deaden the back pain. Apparently, the back of Leo’s little head was pressing against my sacrum and causing all the shooting pain through my back and down my legs.
To help ease the pain, I had Dean turn on the shower with hot hot water and on hands and knees, I had it wash over me in the tub. I stayed there for a long time, praying for progress. Nothing.
Finally, I had had enough. At about four o’clock on the second day (of course we had all been up all night), I finally begged my birth team to take me to the hospital. I was screaming in pain. I was an absolute mess – red face, stringy hair, sour body odour. They reminded me that I had made them promise NOT to take me to the hospital. I screamed at them that I couldn’t do this anymore. I told them I wanted to run out the door, down the country road and lie in the ditch until the pain stopped with my death. Talk of death spurned them into action.
Dean got our small mini-van and I climbed into the back seat on hands and knees and howled like a sick wolf all the way to the hospital, my hands clutching the back of the back seat while I faced backward, rocking back and forth on my knees. There was no way I could sit down. Dean drove like a mad man. As soon as we got to the hospital room, I threw off my little sundress and labored stark naked. I could not tolerate anything touching my skin. When my Ob-Gyn arrived to examine me, I sniffed his spicy-scented exotic cologne and screamed at him to get out. Crazed by the scent, even though normally I would have loved it. I was slipping into madness. He left and came back after taking a shower. He was a sweet, gentle soul.
Finally, I had been there long enough for them to observe me and examine me. They were then able to give me an epidural. Oh bliss. The pain stopped. A feeling of well-being and contentment settled over me. My birth team: Dean, the doula and the mid-wife, all fell asleep on big comfy chairs, while I dilated. I should have been absolutely sapped and should have fallen fast asleep with the epidural. Contrarily, I was wide-awake. A foreshadowing of what was to come.
A few hours went by and when the nurse checked me, I was finally at ten centimeters. It was time to push. By 2:14 am on Monday, Aug 9, 1999 Leo arrived. He was perfect and beautiful. A seven-pound boy whom I hugged, caressed and kissed. I was so happy.
We went home early from the hospital, but shouldn’t have. It was my idea. Hospitals were bad. I was sure of it. At home, we struggled to get into a routine with the feedings and diapering of our new born. Dean and I were quite worried about making any mistakes with Leo. We were in Virginia without family to tell us what was what.
I started to become very very happy. Elated, even. I was unable to sleep and I wasn’t one bit tired. I started making phone calls to all kinds of friends and family, in the middle of the night. I had crazy ideas that didn’t seem crazy to me at the time. I clearly remember calling one of our old army friends at four in the morning. I had this idea that I wanted to gather all of our friends together to live in a tent city in our back yard. Somehow, for some reason, I would be in charge. While I write, I can not quite recall what the mission of this gathering would be – just that it was very, very important.
Dean would be fast asleep, exhausted from the ordeal of the birth and the nighttime feedings and diapering of Leo. I however, seemed to not need sleep at all and my thoughts would race all night. I began sending emails in the middle of the night. In one particular email that I sent to my younger brother, Luke, I clearly stated that I thought I must be manic. Remember, at this point in my life, I had never had mental illness but, I had witnessed it in my mother and my brother, Mark.
Next, I began writing furiously in my journal. Whatever I wrote, I was sure it was profound and would gladly show it to Dean or anyone else. I became delusional and started to have visions of myself being the Virgin Mary and Leo being baby Jesus. My friend, Nancy, came to visit and I wanted her to massage me and do my hair and my nails, as if I was a celebrity and she was my servant. When she wouldn’t comply, I screamed hysterically at her.
One of Dean’s work colleagues, Jamie, who had become our close friend down there, came to visit one night. After he took one look at my wild eyes and heard the nonsense I was spouting, he said to Dean: ‘Marti is manic.’ He explained that he had just recently been with another friend who had gone through a similar trauma. He told Dean that I would need to go to the hospital, now.
Dean’s face froze. He knew Jamie was right. My psychosis was worsening by the moment. I was turning into a screaming banshee because people weren’t doing what I wanted them to do – things that were completely ridiculous. Things that I wouldn’t normally EVER ask of anyone. Dean and Jamie took me to the local hospital and they put me in a room for the night. Of course I was very afraid of not being close to little Leo for feedings. The next day I was admitted to the psych ward of the George Washington University Hospital in D.C.. I was screaming and crying and carrying on. They put me in a straitjacket, shot me in the ass with a sedative and man-handled me into a rubber room where they threw me to the ground roughly. That might be funny in Monty Python movies, but it was dead serious for me. I felt like I had just entered the ninth circle of hell.
Hours later I was put in a private room with an ensuite bathroom. This was an old hospital and it was not pretty. The windows were covered in a thick mesh and let in very little light. There was a highway of ants at the bottom of the wall beside my bed. What had I done to deserve this? All I wanted to do was breast-feed Leo. That wasn’t going to happen, I was told. Due to all of the medication. My breast milk was no longer any good for Leo. Oh my. That was a sad pill to swallow.
My mind was abuzz with all kinds of nonsense. I thought I was in a movie and that all the other patients on the floor with me were actors. I would try to catch them out on their lines. I thought I was the Virgin Mother still and that this was a big test of my sainthood. I thought I could save people by laying my hands on them. One day, I called my sister Eva and told her I had had a miscarriage that morning. Before that phone call, Eva didn’t really think I was that ill. Now she got it. I called my old friends from Barrie whom I had grown up with. Sally was the most attentive and seriously tried to help me out of this major predicament. Kelly used medical-speak on me and it infuriated me to no end. I called Sally several times. I asked her to call my little brother and say ‘Snowball’. I told her that he would know what that meant. ‘Snowball‘ had been the code word for immediate deployment that we used in Germany in 4 Service Battalion in 1990. Sally did it and I was ever grateful.
Dean called his eldest sister and asked her to come stay for a few weeks, to help with Leo while he was dealing with me and going back and forth the hour to the hospital in D.C. every day. She was wonderful and did very well with Leo. I called my mom’s older sister too. She also came down to help. The two of them got along famously: both red-heads, both mothers, both having had careers in education. One day, the two of them, with Leo, drove to D.C. to bring Leo to me for a visit. This was huge. Two older women, from small Canadian towns, driving to the heart of a large US city with a newborn. They did it and it made me very happy. My eldest brother’s wife, June also came down for several days. We were loved and taken care of. What a blessing.
Immediately, to get my head straight, I was put on Haldol and it caused me to shuffle down the hall, stoop over and drool on myself. It is a very strong anti-psychotic with awful side-effects. I was also put on lithium. Whenever I could, I would get on the phone and call any friend or family member whose number I had in my head. I called Dean’s mom in Newfoundland and started spouting off about all of my troubles. She told me simply: ‘Just do what the doctors tell you to do and get the hell out of there. ‘ That was good advice.
I was discharged in twelve days.
(Picture below credit to pinterest. The one of me in the red dress and of my baby are mine. The dragonfly was taken by a friend of my cousin)
What do you think of this out-of-the-blue psychosis story? I would love to read your comments.